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Handling Emergencies Abroad

Traveling abroad can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. But sometimes the most breathtaking views, the wildest tropical adventures, and the once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences happen far from the medical and law enforcement facilities and personnel you might need in an emergency.

A little preparation can go a long way to ensure you have the resources and know-how to handle any emergency you might experience while in a foreign country, minimizing the financial cost and emotional trauma and giving you the chance to continue on your adventures.

Basics

These essential tips will help with theft prevention, access to back-up funds and local emergency services, and assisting quick medical help—and they all take very little time to prepare and can be done before you pack your bags.

  • Bring multiple ways of paying for things—cash in the local currency, debit card, at least one credit card, traveler’s checks—and be sure to keep them in separate places. Consider wearing a money belt.
  • Make a copy of your driver’s license and passport and keep a copy of each in every bag you pack. This helps if you ever lose your ID or have one of your bags stolen.
  • Know how to ask for help in the native language. If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, know how to say these words as well.
  • Make sure friends or family back home know your itinerary and when you should be checking in.
  • Learn the local emergency number—here’s a tip, it’s not 911! On GSM (Global System for Mobile) phones, the number 112 will connect you to emergency services in most countries. In European Union countries, 112 also works on fixed phones.
  • Register your trip online with the State Department. This may sound extreme, but having your trip on record with the State Department means your information will also be readily accessible by the nearest American Embassy, who can relay information between you and family members if there is an emergency at home or abroad. They will also alert you about any crisis at your destination and give you lists of doctors, specialists, and hospitals nearby. In some cases, they can help with the transfer of funds to pay for unexpected medical bills.

Medical Emergencies

Having a medical emergency away from home and familiar doctors may be the worst-case scenario imaginable for many travelers. And it can be a legitimate concern, but here’s what you can do to prevent a medical emergency, or even mild-concern, from turning into a catastrophe.

Always travel with your health information easily accessible for emergency and first responders. This should include blood type, allergies, pre-existing conditions, and any medications you’re taking. You can wear a medical alert bracelet with some of this information on it (check out online shops for fashionable medical ID bracelets and watches), or you can write it down on a piece of paper kept in your wallet (ideally with a second copy written in the native language). You can even keep the information online at a place like healthvault.com, where healthcare providers can access it.

Pack plenty of needed prescriptions—better yet, take more than you’ll need in case you lose any. Also have a back-up plan for how to get ahold of necessary medication if you lose your luggage. It’s not a bad idea to also bring over-the-counter meds like allergy pills, so you don’t spend your vacation looking for a pharmacy.

If there are any required—or even recommended—vaccinations for your destination, be sure to receive them six to eight weeks before your trip. If you’re traveling to a Third World country or remote location, research the quality of medical care so you can make informed decisions on what types of treatments the medical facilities and personnel are capable of.

Stolen, Lost, or Robbed

Sadly, the first opportunity to lose something while on vacation comes before you ever leave the airport. Lost luggage happens. If it happens to you, speak with an airline customer service representative as soon as possible. For the best outcome when making a lost luggage claim, there’s a tight 24-timeline. After that, what the airline can do is limited. Before you travel, know the limits of the airline’s financial liability and refund/replacement policies. This will help with your claim and perhaps guide your decision of which airline to fly. If this sounds overwhelming, stick to the best rule of thumb: don’t check baggage. You might be surprised what you can pack into one carry-on and a personal item!

Theft also happens while traveling, sometimes despite taking all suggested precautions. If a wallet, purse, or luggage was stolen, report it to the local police. This will not only help recovery efforts, but you will also need it for any insurance claims.

If your ID was lost or stolen and you’re in a foreign country, your next stop should be to the American embassy or consulate. Replacing an official ID can take anywhere from hours to a few days—and will cost a fee—but it’s a crucial step. Having a copy of your IDs will expedite the process. The embassy will also assist you with notifying the police or other authorities if you feel the local police are unreliable.

If a wallet or purse containing debit or credit cards was misplaced or stolen, your next call should be to the issuing bank, credit union, and/or credit card company to put a hold on your accounts. Make this step easier by storing their customer service numbers in your phone. If debit and/or credit cards were your only non-cash forms of payment, be sure to withdraw enough cash to see you through the rest of your trip or until you can get a replacement.

Lastly, file a claim with any insurance policies that might cover the loss.

Insurance

Before you travel, review your life, health (especially the Emergency Medical Services section), and travel insurance policies. Understand what’s covered, what’s not covered, and how expensive it would be to pay for services or replace items not covered. Keep your insurance provider(s) information in your phone for easy and quick access. You may not always have access to WiFi while traveling to look it up.

If your medical or travel insurance doesn’t cover medical bills and transportation while traveling, look into a supplemental policy from an independent insurer. Also be sure to check what your credit cards cover—some reimburse medical and emergency evacuation expenses.

Be sure you have easy access to money—whether through credit cards, your savings account, or friends and family—should you need to pay out-of-pocket or up-front for emergency services, regardless of if you’ll be reimbursed by an insurance company later.

Another option is to join an international medical membership organization. They can arrange emergency case coordination, insurance claims assistance, legal help, and referrals to licensed (and English-speaking) doctors abroad, many of whom will visit you at your hotel.

Many people travel all over the world and never encounter a greater emergency than running out of toothpaste or needing a band aide. There are also those who encounter unexpected bumps in their trip, but because they were prepared, were able to continue on their vacation. Plan like the second group and hope to be part of the first!

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